A microscopic view of the coronavirus.

This COVID-19 situation is the weirdest thing that’s happened in my lifetime, with the possible exception of the military draft during the Vietnam War. I escaped a forced journey to the jungle, apparently by sheer luck, when I got No. 275 in the lottery. The coronavirus, on the other hand, is a force of nature, where luck is less of a factor.

By this I mean that we have some input into whether we get sick or not. The war was an avoidable man-made disaster worsened by making participation a matter of random chance; the coronavirus is an unavoidable natural disaster that can be lessened by deliberate, rational behavior and self-discipline. As in all the rest of life, there are gray areas. But at least we have some choices. So at our house we wash our hands more often. Our only trips out are to the grocery store. We keep as much distance as practical from people there. My old-man basketball teammates and I followed the lead of the NBA and suspended the season. (Our season lasts year-round, so no one really knows what we’ve done.) Family members still visit because we can’t do without them, but less often. After their shorter stays, we wipe down doorknobs, counters, tabletops.

What are we doing, actually, when we start cleaning like mad hatters? Getting rid of viruses, is the answer. But what that means, exactly, is kind of interesting. When you’re washing your hands or wiping down a counter, you’re not exactly killing viruses because viruses are not exactly alive. They’re not exactly not-alive, either. What could this possibly mean?

Down there in the micro world of germs, there are tiny animals such as tardigrades, which look like little alien pigs. You need a microscope to see them, but they’re made of some tens of thousands of cells, the defining characteristic of living things. Down another order or so of size are bacteria and their cousins the archaea. Each bacterium is made of one cell. It reproduces by dividing in two. Bacteria have lived on Earth for about 3.5 billion years.

Even smaller than bacteria are viruses, which the scientists use electron-scanning microscopes to see. It’s thought that viruses showed up on Earth around 1.5 billion years ago. There are millions of kinds of viruses. Biologists are unsure whether they’re alive or not, for two reasons: 1. viruses cannot reproduce on their own, and 2. viruses by themselves are inert. What does this mean.

By conventional definition, living beings are made of cells, which are little self-contained biochemical energy dynamos (not the technical definition) capable of reproducing themselves, such as bacteria and humans. An individual virus is not a cell. Instead, it’s an assembly of a nucleic acid molecule (such as RNA or DNA) in a protein coating.

This RNA/DNA-protein assembly is inert, inactive. It needs to encounter a living cell to activate. In a way, the virus is just a tiny dot of chemical on a doorknob that gets on your fingers, and then when you put your fingers on your face, gets in your nose or mouth. When the virus’s protein “capsid” contacts internal tissue, it attaches itself to the cell. Next, the virion, as it’s called, penetrates the cell; there are a lot of ways to do this because plants, animals and bacteria (yes, viruses can infect bacteria) have different defenses against this penetration. Once the virion has invaded the cell, the capsid is shed and the virus combines its nucleic acid component with the cell’s nucleic acid, and uses it to live and replicate itself like a cellular being.

Then all kinds of strange things can happen, depending on the kind of virus and the host organism. Many kinds of virus erupt from the cell, damaging and usually killing it, and this is when symptoms of illness appear. When the body’s immune system heats up to fight the infection, fever ensues. Some viruses cause more damage than others, and many would kill their hosts if allowed to by the immune system. The Ebola virus, for example, turns immune system cells against their own body in ways that badly damage cells and tissue, leading to bleeding that can lead to death. Some viruses live in the cell with few or no outer symptoms, or with long-delayed symptoms, as with a herpes virus.

When you’re wiping down counters and washing your hands, you’re not exactly killing viruses. Alcohol-based disinfectants can kill bacteria because bacteria are alive; but they don’t kill viruses because viruses are not exactly alive. The virus on the doorknob or your finger has to be dispersed. Washing hands with soap is better for getting rid of the coronavirus than disinfectants because soap’s whole chemical mission is to loosen up and disperse scunge – it disperses the nonliving virus assembly. The disinfectant doesn’t, necessarily.

While trying to figure this all out, I read the following sentence in a research paper: “There is no generally accepted definition of life or ‘aliveness.’” Viruses, even though they lack cell structure, can nevertheless be classified as “replicators,” meaning — to grossly oversimplify — that they have the capacity to replicate themselves, even though they cannot do it autonomously like a living being.

Viruses are “organisms at the edge of life,” another source said.

I wonder when we’ll be able to start playing basketball again.

 

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected]. His recent book is “Summer to Fall: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods,” available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.


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